TORRENCE BREAKS INTO TOP FUEL WIN COLUMN WITH THREE-PEAT AT CHARLOTTE - Reigning Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence’s performance Sunday at the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals was as simple as 1-2-3-4:

First victory of the year and first since sweeping all six Countdown races in unprecedented fashion
Second final-round appearance of the season
Third consecutive victory at the four-wide race here and fourth in his past five visits to Charlotte, counting the 2018 fall Countdown event
Fourth straight four-wide triumph

The road to his winning 3.778-second, 323.19-mph victory might have appeared easy as he sped away from runner-up Clay Millican on the 1,000-foot zMAX Dragway course at Concord, N.C. What it took was a serious conversation the Capco Contractors Dragster driver had to have with himself.

Torrence said he hadn’t been angry that he couldn’t regain that crushing power he had displayed last fall.

“I’ve kind of learned some things about myself,” he said after earning his 28th total victory. “I can’t be relaxed and happy-go-lucky. I’ve got to have a chip on my shoulder, maybe not directed at anybody, maybe directed at somebody. That’s the way I seem to race better, just an aggressive stance, just going for it instead of just sitting back and letting it happen. Maybe I’d been driving on the defense instead of on the offense. Changed my mindset and just went out there and tried to do what I knew how to do instead of thinking about it.”

He said that at the Las Vegas four-wide event “I let my mind get in front of my foot.” That was earlier in the month, and he had a nagging feeling he needed to fix that.

“This morning I woke up and had a conversation with myself and said, ‘We’re going to get this deal done,’” Torrence said.

That chip on his shoulder has been missing the past five races, but he said he realized it was there for all 24 races of last season, when he was perfect in 11 finals and added six semifinal finishes.

“It’s just a mindset that I as a driver have to be in. You learn what works for you and what doesn’t work for you. I know what doesn’t work, and I figured out what does. It’s just the way that I race,” he said.

That might signal a warning for the rest of the class. Torrence probably didn’t even have to say, “These ol’ Capco Boys, we don’t give up. We might be down for a little bit, but we’re back up. And we’re ready for a fight.”   

He didn’t get a huge fight in Sunday’s final-round quartet that was almost identical to last year’s Top Fuel Final Four – except this time Leah Pritchett replaced Doug Kalitta.

Clay Millican, in the Parts Plus/Strutmasters Dragster for Straightline Strategy Group, trailed Torrence by a sizeable 0.2156 seconds, or about 98 feet. Millican made his third final-round appearance of the season in search of his fourth NHRA victory. And thanks largely to an outstanding .019-second light, he was runner-up with a 4.035, 310.48.

Amalie Oil Dragster owner-driver Terry McMillen had hoped to give wife Cori career trophy No. 3 trophy for her birthday Sunday in his first final-round appearance of the season. He was looking for his first victory since the U.S. Nationals last September. But he lost traction and finished third at 4.349, 219.08.

Pritchett advanced to her second final-round appearance of the year, going for her eighth overall victory in the Pennzoil/Mopar Dragster for Don Schumacher Racing. She also raced in the two-wide Factory Stock Showdown class here. She lost in the first round to eventual winner Bill Skillman in her Mopar Drag Pak. “This weekend for me,” she said beforehand, “is truly about being the driver I know I am and turning on win lights for our dedicated fans who have shown support for our teams, no matter what colors we adorn. Running the chrome Pennzoil car again feels good and I can’t wait to get some redemption for the Pennzoil nation.” Since her runner-up finish to Billy Torrence at Phoenix, Pritchett had not advanced past the second round but remained a top-five driver. In the Top Fuel final, she was last off the starting line and last across the finish line.

“The bad news is that we didn’t get a win out of the final. The good news is, we’re done with four-wide racing for the year,” Pritchett said. “I don’t think the four-wide particularly had too much to do with the result of our day. We raced in a lane we only previously had one run in, since we had last pick. The highlight is first round we had the race car and driver come together and we were able to sweep past the competition and into the second round. It’s progress. Four-wide throws a lot of curve balls at you as a driver and a crew chief.
“T-minus five days we’ll be in Atlanta, and we’re definitely looking forward to that. It’ll be warm so we’re going to take everything we learned here and apply it there. I can personally say I’m frustrated. I’ve tried a lot of things, physically and mentally, to be where the competition is at with reaction times, and frustrated because it’s not working. I will continue to work towards a solution, and I can’t wait to show out in Atlanta.”

Evidently zMAX Dragway is just a Torrence-friendly venue.

“I like this place,” Torrence said. “At first, I was pretty open about not being a fan of the four-wide. But I have retracted that statement. I enjoy it. We do really well here. I like racing here. This is a cool place to come. Bruton [track owner Smith] has built unbelievable facilities. But this just happens to be one we do really well at. We could race all of ‘em here.”

The Kilgore, Texas, native said, “It’s not been the way we wanted to start the season. We hadn’t had the car we had in the Countdown, but that’s not because of anything other than trying some things and testing some stuff.  We came in third in the points, so we weren’t doing too bad. But we have a high level of expectation that we carry. I have a really good group of guys behind me. [Crew chief] Richard Hogan, [car chief] Bobby Lagana, and every one of those Capco Boys just instill confidence in you. So it makes it even more gratifying to come here and kind of turn the tables on things and see if we can get some momentum going.”

Torrence celebrated in the winners circle with Shawn Langdon (Funny Car) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) – and promised, “We’re going to do some celebrating [tonight]. I can hear a train horn in the background.”

What made it sweeter was it was dad Billy Torrence’s 61st birthday. Cementing the memorable day was the fact Langdon will bring a trophy to his own father, Chad Langdon, who’s recovering well from a liver transplant just a few weeks ago.

“Go win this one for your Pops,” Torrence told Langdon as they awaited the final round. Later he told Langdon, “Shawn, I’m glad you could win this one for your dad. That’s pretty special.”

Next on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule is the May 3-5 Arby’s Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Susan Wade


With his dad recovering from a liver transplant not that far from zMAX Dragway, Shawn Langdon put his Toyota Funny Car in the winner's circle Sunday for the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA 4-Wide Nationals.

"Dad, I got you one, buddy," Shawn Langdon said after accepting the Wally trophy for winning his first Funny Car race.

Chad Langdon recently received a new liver at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and he's recovering in Mebane, N.C.

"I tried to be there as much as I could for him," Shawn Langdon said. "I told him, 'I’m going to get you one.' I was hoping to do it last race, but beggars cant' be choosers. Second race in, I'll take it. Fortunately, he's healthy. He beat cancer, had a liver transplant, and he's doing good. I'm going to see him this week, so we'll be able to get him that trophy."

In addition to winning his first Funny Car race, Langdon made more history Sunday. He became the 92nd driver to win in Funny Car, 17th driver to win in Top Fuel and Funny Car, and the second one to win in both nitro categories at zMAX – joining, interestingly, his crew chief, Del Worsham.

"It's humbling when my name gets put next to those guys because I grew up idolizing those guys," Langdon said. "To have my name next to them, I don't really know how to take it. I’m very happy that I'm here, but a lot of times I look at it like, 'Man, I don't know what I did to deserve that.' Very, very humbling and very gracious to have my name alongside those guys.

"The way I do it, I don't really pay attention to a lot of that stuff. I just do the best I can every single time, and they kind of fall where they fall."

Langdon took advantage of the unique format of the 4-Wide Nationals to advance to the final round. He finished second in his first-round quad to Tommy Johnson Jr., and then finished second in his semifinal quad to Robert Hight.

The semifinal was a bit of a survival race, as Langdon spun the tires but pedaled and ran 4.311 seconds at 213.60 mph. That helped him overcome Johnson, who slowed to a run of 4.363 at 213.60 mph. The top two from each early-round quad advance to the next round.

That put Langdon in the final against No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight, No. 3 qualifier John Force and No. 6 qualifier Matt Hagan. And the final wasn't at all pretty, as Hight ran 4.159, Force 4.517 and Hagan 5.252.

But Langdon, despite leaving last with a .069-second reaction time, legged out the victory with a not-so-stellar pass of 4.125 seconds at 305.08 mph.

"I wasn't really sure what Force was going to do because sometimes it's a little crapshoot," Langdon said. "He throws it in deep, and I look and go, 'Damn, Force is in deep.' And then I'm looking at the Tree, and I was mad when I left because I didn't feel like I got it good. Then, it's going down there, and you have so many emotions in your head when you're driving, and I'm thinking in the back of my head, 'This thing's really not running well.' It's just kind of petering down there, and I'm glancing out to my left, thinking, 'Well, damn, I don't see anybody.'"

Langdon was in the far right lane, but Force wasn’t next to him. Still, the drama wasn't over. Because two drivers advance from each quad, a flashing light with the winning lane number indicates the winner, with a solid light with the runner-up lane number indicating who finished second.

"I go through the finish line and see a blinking light," Langdon said. "I thought, 'Well, OK, I haven't seen that yet today.' I Know I've been second twice and it's been a solid light, so I'm like, 'Damn, I think we might have won.'

"I got on the radio and said, 'Did we win? I got a flashing light. I don't know what that means.' I didn't hear nothing."

That's because his Kalitta Motorsports crew were celebrating as it usually does, in a giant moshpit on the starting line, though Langdon didn't know that at the time.

Finally, as Langdon came around the corner at top end, he was pointed to where winners go.

"I had about 10 seconds to think, 'OK, cool, I just won,'" Langdon said. "Just an awesome feeling. This is cool." Lee Montgomery

HINES RECORDS 50TH PRO STOCK BIKE TRIUMPH IN FOUR-WIDE FASHION - This weekend’s Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event was called the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, and the plan is to trim eliminations to three rounds.

But because a staging bulb failed to light in Hector Arana Sr.’s lane during the semifinals and officials permitted a “do-over,” Andrew Hines had to make four passes to claim his class-record-extending 50th victory Sunday at zMAX Dragway.

The drama just made his milestone victory all the more memorable. It was an uncertain start for the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson Street Rod team, with Angele Sampey shutting off her engine early and finishing last in her Round 1 quad and Hines’ concern that “our bikes were a little off-pace from where they should’ve been.” However, it turned into what Hines called “a big, big day,” with teammate Eddie Krawiec earning the runner-up spot for an organization sweep.

Hines said winning for the 50th time was a “fantastic” feeling.

“It’s been a lot of different motorcycles over my career. I’ve probably ridden seven, eight, nine chassis over the years to achieve that feat. But the thing that has remained solid is my crew. They’ve been the same crew the entire time. That’s a testament to how good they’ve been over the years to keep the motorcycle right and keep my mind right. Without a crew that’s as phenomenal as they are, its really hard to win these races. Being able to celebrate with them and share that moment was pretty spectacular,” he said. “It’s something I’ll remember forever. And this Wally is going to sit on my mantle very proud, believe me.”  

Hines, who has led the standings since winning at Gainesville, Fla., in the class’ season-opener, clocked an elapsed time of 6.831 seconds at 198.17 mph on the quarter-mile at Concord, N.C.

Krawiec was runner-up here five straight years (2013-17) – make that six now – and was seeking his first victory at this race, his first victory of the year, and his first victory since last August at Brainerd, Minn. Krawiec’s .032-second reaction time was quickest of the finalists’, but his 6.858, 197.68 performance wasn’t enough to catch Hines.

The money-round quartet featured the top three racers in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings, with No. 2 Hector Arana Jr. and No. 3 Krawiec, along with first-time finalist Ryan Oehler.

Arana Jr., atop the Lucas Oil Buell, won the year’s other four-wide race, at Las Vegas earlier this month, emerging first from a quartet that included Krawiec and Hines, also, like Sunday. His 198.82-mph speed was the fastest among the Final Four, but his 6.908 was third-best.

Oehler, on his Flyin’ Ryan Racing/B&K Cylinder Heads Buell out of Bloomington, Ill., finished fourth at 6.959, 196.27.  

The winners podium reflected seven professional and 11 total NHRA championships as five-timer Hines joined Steve Torrence (Top Fuel) and Shawn Langdon (Funny Car).

In what Hines called “the wacky round,” he said he was in Lane 2, “watching the tree flicker in Lane 3 [Arana Sr.’s lane]. I didn’t know what the heck was going on. I thought somebody over there in Lane 3 didn’t know where they were and [was] moving back and forth. The next thing you know we’re all staged. So I just turned the throttle before anybody else and the next thing you know, my red light comes on. I’m not sure exactly what the malfunction was. I’m sure they’ll explain it to us at a later date. That was an interesting deal, waiting around, thinking, ‘Are we going to get a rerun? Are we going to get a chance to do this? Are they happy with the results? What’s going to happen?’ I guess the decision came down to rerun it, so that’s never happened in my career that I know, for a motorcycle class.”

For the record, the power supply in that particular Christmas tree went bad, causing Hines to see the light flickering but Arana to see nothing from his side. That’s why Arana was trying whatever he could do to maneuver his bike and perhaps trigger the light to come on.  

At the top end of the racetrack later, Hines said he was looking at some video of the incident which showed nothing lighting up for Arana. Hines said, “I started telling people, ‘No. There were lights coming on right and left. It looked like I was getting pulled over by the cops. There were blue lights flashing everywhere.” He said he even went across the [tech] scales again to make sure he was compliant in the case of a rerun. He and the others returned to the pits and were told, ‘We’re rerunning this thing in 45 minutes. Can you be ready?’ I said, ‘We’ll be ready in 30. Let’s get up there and do this thing again.’ Made up for it and went low E.T. in the ‘new’ second round. So that paid dividends for how my bike’s been working. It likes Lane 2. For some reason, Lane 2 has been kind to me over the years. I think I’ve won all but one of my Charlotte races from Lane 2.”

He said as he blasted down the track in the original semifinal that something wasn’t quite right.

Hines said he told himself, “My red light’s on, and I’m going down the track, thinking, ‘That doesn’t make sense. I saw the yellow turn on. I threw the clutch away. That wasn’t a red light, because the red bulb came on exactly with the yellows. It was very strange.’ It threw me for a loop.”

He said, “I’m not the greatest leaver in our class,” but he said for him a red light is “very rare.”

At that point, he said, “I just took it as it is. I rolled around the corner. People are talking. I’m like, ‘That’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened.’ You don’t know when you’re supposed to go. Should you back out of the beams? But if you back up, is everybody else going to stage and take advantage of actually going and you’re sitting there, the one unlucky duck on the starting line? I just took it as it came and waited for the word to go again. The bright side of that is you get one extra run for a tune-up.”

He said for the final round, “it didn’t really matter what the track conditions were. I was just going to go up to Lane 2. That’s where I was happy, where I was comfortable.

“For the final round, we all did our normal staging procedures, sat there, and I popped the clutch and I’m like, ‘Whew. I didn’t get all of that one.’ And I knew with Eddie being in Lane 1, he’s probably making a good run. I was tucked in, just thinking, ‘Eddie had better not drive around me.’ He’s been known to do that to a lot of people. Luckily I got there by one-hundredth [of a second],” Hines said.

The entire weekend was unpredictable, he said: “Not one of these days was similar to the others.”

Hines paid tribute to his crew, saying they persevered as race day grew hotter and consequently tougher: “We persevered in the heat. We persevered with the hot engines and hot motorcycle. Even in the first round of eliminations, had to get shut off, turned back on, restaged. There was no shortage of emotions flying through my head in every run up there in four-wide today.”

Emotions in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class began ramping up before eliminations even started. Public-address announcer Alan Reinhart mediated/refereed a debate between current champion Matt Smith and veteran racer Steve Johnson about their ongoing dispute that erupted after the NHRA adjusted weight rules for the sake of parity. Hines said, “It’s interesting from the outside. Those guys are definitely picking on each other quite hard. But it’s interesting points they both have, if you look at it from both sides. I just know we’re out here racing with Harley-Davidson. We’re a professional team. We’re going to go out there and do as best as we can for them. From our side of it, our full deal is racing is our life – for our entire crew. That’s what we do at Vance & Hines. We’re paid by Harley-Davidson to go out and do the best we can. So we just look at it and laugh at it and we just flush it out and go out and race.”

Once again, that has worked for Hines and Company. Susan Wade


HIGHT KEEPS DOMINATING - Robert Hight piloted his Auto Club of Southern California Chevy Camaro SS Funny Car to the top position in the final qualifying round on Saturday with a pass of 3.883 at 325.92, earning his fourth No.1 qualifier this season. He’s won the Four-Wide event at zMAX once before, in 2014 and hopes to continue the positive trajectory he’s experienced this season. Jack Beckman sits in the No. 2 spot with his run of 3.891 at 321.42. John Force landed the third position on the ladder with his pass of 3.905 at 329.42.

“I don’t think I’ve ever in my career had a car that’s this dominant,” said Hight. “When you really look at how competitive the class is, from one to twelve, there’s just hundredths of a second separating us. It’s pretty amazing for us to be running this well and it makes my job pretty easy. You know that this car is going to go down the track as long as you don’t screw it up.”


SALINAS REMAINS NO. 1 - Mike Salinas, who recently won his first Top Fuel event in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, secured his No.1 qualifier position with his run from Friday night when he set the track E.T. record at zMAX Dragway. This will be only the third time in his career to start eliminations from the top spot on the ladder. 

Salinas powered his Scrappers Racing Dragster to the top of the field with a pass of 3.687-seconds at 327.43 mph. Antron Brown came in second with his run of 3.725 at 327.03. Terry McMillen nabbed the third spot running 3.728 at 320.36. In Top Fuel this season, the No. 1 qualifier has gone on to win the event three out of five times. Salinas won the Four-Wide event in Las Vegas from the top spot and hopes to repeat that outcome tomorrow. 

“We knew (on Friday) that the track might not hold much,” said Salinas. “Alan (Johnson, tuner) is a genius at what he’s doing and the nice part about it is the car did exactly what we wanted it to do, getting us into the number one spot. All in all I think we had a great run right off the trailer from our disappointment in Houston.”



MASSEY RETURNS - Yes, that WAS Spencer Massey driving a Top Fuel car at zMAX Dragway this weekend. And, yes, it was THAT Spencer Massey, the one who has 18 national-event victories in his career.


Massey returned after a nearly four-year absence from Top Fuel, driving for Pat Dakin. It's a one-off race, Massey said, as he's just keeping his Top Fuel license active.  After this weekend, he'll return to what he loves, bracket racing.

"It's wonderful to be back out," Massey said. "To be able to see my old friends and hang out and smell nitro, I mean it's amazing. Don't get me wrong, I love Top Fuel racing, but I'm having so much fun doing what I've been doing, bracket racing, doing my alcohol dragster. But being able to be out here and see the fans come by and hang out with Dakin and the amazing crew that they have here, I couldn't ask for a better team and a better track really to be at."

Massey said the veteran Dakin has been asking him to drive since 2016, but he resisted doing a race. Dakin, though, persisted, and Massey finally decided to return to the driver's seat for one event.

"They kept asking, 'What race would you want to come back at?' and I'd say Dallas because it's my hometown, or Charlotte because I've won here a few times in the past," Massey said. "I like the Four-Wide and it's only three rounds of eliminations. So when I got here, Dakin's like, 'Hey, do you want to drive?' I'm like, 'Well, I don't have to. I mean you can drive this thing, it's your car.' He said, 'Well if you're here, you've got your helmet and your fire suit, you're driving.'"

Massey first drove Dakin's rail in St. Louis in 2016, simply to keep his license current. He drove it again in Martin, Mich., after a match race between Dakin and Dom Lagana.  

"(Dakin and I) have a very good relationship just from even going back 11 years ago when I first got my Top Fuel license with Mitch King," Massey said. "So Pat Dakin and I are just really good friends. He said he wants me to drive the car. He doesn't have a problem driving it, but he doesn't have a problem not driving it either. So I said, 'Well maybe one race we'll do it.'

"I happened to be coming this way to hit up another bracket race and had the weekend off. I was coming through to hang out with Scott Palmer and hang out with Dakin and now I'm driving. So that's just how it happened to be, but I'm glad I'm here."

Don't expect to see Massey driving at any other NHRA races, though. He's had his fill of "the show."

"I miss driving the car and I miss hanging out with my friends," Massey said. "I don't really miss the show, I don't miss the headache. The last four years of me driving that other car (with Don Schumacher Racing), it was coming out of our pocketbook. You can only do that so long when you're not getting the results that you want. That's why I decided to go a different way.

"And now that I don't have to deal with all that, Pat Dakin didn't have to worry about any other people except for himself and myself, and that's the perfect opportunity for me to do what I want to do."

Massey's tenure with DSR ended in August 2015, and Brainerd was his last race. At the time, DSR said Massey "violated a DSR policy and would not correct the violation." Massey disputed that Saturday, saying he had already decided to leave the team to go bracket racing.

"That's in the past," Massey said. "I mean obviously they have a different opinion of how I thought it went down because they didn't fire me, I told them I was done, I was quitting. Then next thing you know I see that they let me go. I'm like, 'That's not how that went, but OK.' Whatever they want to say, I don't care because I'm going home."

GET MY DRIFT? - There were plenty of driving skills on display at zMax Dragway, and not all were limited to the four quarter-mile strips. Tucked away in the corner front entrance to the west side pit area, track officials have marked off a course with concrete barriers so in between drag racing qualifying sessions fans can be treated to another form of motorsports.

"Every chance we get, we try to step things up a little bit and do something exciting and different for the fans," said Jonathan Coleman, Director of Publicity and Communications at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  

zMaxDragway partnered with a group called East 10 Drift, local professional drifters from around the region, and showcased their talents in the middle of the fan zone.

"We don’t want the drivers on the track to be the only ones to get in on the action this weekend here at the Four-Wide Nationals so we thought we’d bring East 10 out and put on a little show," Coleman explained.

Based on crowd reaction, the showcase could become a staple in future events.

"I absolutely think based on all the early crowd reaction that we’ve gotten so far this will become a regular thing," Coleman said. "I think a lot of enthusiastic fans, a lot of excited folks out there both to watch some of the exhibitions when they take three and four cars out there at a time, and then also to jump in and throw on a helmet and ride along as well. So I hope we’ll be able to bring them back and keep putting on a great show for the fans."


JOSE SEALS THE DEAL - In the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service, Jose Gonzalez snagged the No. 1 spot with his run of 5.657 at 257.14. 

"I can't believe we've qualified No. 1 for the second race in a row,” said Gonzalez. “The four-wide is so hard to predict but I'd place our bets on our team to come home with the Wally tomorrow." 

Eliminations for the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals begin Sunday at 12:00 PM ET.

ALWAYS A FAN OF FOUR-WIDE - Cruz Pedregon has liked the four wide concept of drag racing since zMax Dragway introduced it to the national event format in 2009. He liked it even more when he won the event for the first time last season.

“Ten years for this race is a great milestone, and I’ve liked it from the very beginning,” said Pedregon, who has 36 career Funny Car wins. “It’s a little different, and it mixes things up a little bit, but I like it. You get four Funny Cars out there, and it’s quite a scene. It’s a lot of power. I like the facility, and I love the track, and I’ve made some of my best runs in Charlotte.”

Pedregon, ranked 11th in the Funny Car championship points standings, has qualified in the top half of the field at four of the first five races, qualifying third in Las Vegas. It has translated to just two round wins thus far, but Pedregon believes that luck is about to change.

“We’re on track, and if we keep chopping wood, we’ll break through,” Pedregon said. “The main thing to do is not try too hard. You can’t press too hard whether you’re tuning or driving, and you just have to be confident in what you’re doing can carry you through. When you start pressing, that’s when you start making mistakes. This isn’t our first rodeo. The car is running well, and we’re confident in what we’re doing away from the track and at the track will pay off.”

Pedregon is coming alive at the right time as he rolls into a facility which has been complimentary to his efforts.

“Every driver has a track where they do well, and for whatever reason Charlotte has been good to me,” Pedregon said. “I love going there. Our car is as good or a tick better than last year, so we’ll just try to go out and do what we did last year. For me, I prefer this type of year when it gets busy. I can get in more of a groove, and we feel like the breaks will start to come for us.”

NEW DEAL FOR DSR, PRITCHETT - Don Schumacher Racing announced today that the team’s ongoing partnership with Okuma, a leading machine tool manufacturer, has expanded to include a primary sponsorship of Leah Pritchett’s Top Fuel dragster at three NHRA events in 2019, and associate support of Tommy Johnson Jr.’s Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car.
Pritchett will banner the Okuma brand at the Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Joliet, Ill., the NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway, and at the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway during the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. Johnson’s Hellcat will feature the Okuma logo at all remaining 2019 NHRA events beginning with this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway near Okuma’s North America headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.
“Our relationship with Okuma dates back to 2014,” said Don Schumacher, owner of Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) and Don Schumacher Motorsports (DSM). “We were looking to expand our machine shop’s capabilities and wanted to be able to bring high-precision jobs in-house at Don Schumacher Motorsports. We were looking for equipment that could satisfy that need, and we found Okuma to be the best choice. Since that time, we’ve grown to utilizing 15 machines and are thrilled that the partnership has expanded into a branding opportunity that fans can see on the race track.”
DSM, the production arm of DSR, is a leading parts supplier in the NHRA Drag Racing industry, offering a wide range of products including cylinder heads and engine blocks to many teams competing on the NHRA circuit. Currently, DSM produces approximately 8,000 parts a year from its catalog of more than 300 different parts. DSM’s Senior Manufacturing Engineer Scott Cutler attributes Okuma’s accuracy, reliability, rigidity, and speed for being able to produce high-quality parts in such large volumes.
Recently, the partnership has led to the development of the DSM Nitro Block which made its debut as a prototype in Antron Brown’s Top Fuel dragster in late 2018. Pritchett ran the first official production block at the 2019 NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas with tremendous results and has continued to utilize the block in her 11,000-horsepower machine. The block was machined in DSM’s Okuma MA-600 at DSR’s Brownsburg, Ind. facility.

THE GOOD OLD DAYS - Rickie Smith still has trouble believing what he has seen now for three events. He never thought he'd see the Mountain Motor Pro Stocks racing under the NHRA sanction.

Smith, a five-time world champion drag racer with the hefty displacement factory hot rods, remembers a day when he couldn't imagine himself behind the wheel of anything but a large displacement Ford-powered Pro Stocker. Those days are distant memories, it appears.

Friday, as he watched the Mountain Motor Pro Stock cars make their initial runs down the zMax Dragway quarter-mile during the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, Smith realized how much drag racing has erased what used to be rigid thinking.

"I never figured they’d let them big motors come in over here," said Smith, a 31-time IHRA Mountain Motor Pro Stock event winner. "It’s a good deal. It’s just more exposure for everybody."

Indirectly, Smith helped to bring NHRA Pro Stock to 500-inch displacement. Smith, on a sunny spring day in April 1980, made drag racing history when he became the first Pro Stock driver into the seven-second zone with his Oak Ridge Boys-sponsored Mustang II in Rockingham, NC.

Smith's impressive run shined a major media spotlight on the large displacement Pro Stockers of the IHRA, and their seven-second exploits while the NHRA's rigid pounds-per-cubic inch format was producing runs barely into the 8.3-second zone.

Eventually, the NHRA relented and adopted their brand of mountain motor Pro Stock; capping their peaks at 500-cubic inches. This still made the gesture look like molehills compared to the IHRA machines which were expanding to almost 700-inches at the start of the 1982 season.

Smith by default became the poster child for the Mountain Motor Pro Stock, a status which didn't endear him much with the NHRA. The NHRA/IHRA rivalry was very much at the forefront of drag racing.

"It took me 10-12 years over here before they halfway accepted me and they still ain’t accepted me just because I was a champion so much over in IHRA," Smith admitted. "When I come over here, they honestly absolutely wore me out tech wise, everything. It finally got alright, but it took 10-12 years for me to be accepted over here."

FULL CIRCLE - Vincent Nobile learned a long time ago the value of Mountain Motor Pro Stock.

For him, it came naturally as he followed his father, past IHRA Mountain Motor Pro Stock champion John, from track to track soaking in the experience.

At zMax Dragway, Nobile witnessed what he envisioned as a pipe dream when he drove Rocky Watford’s Camaro to a spot in the 16-car field.

“I can honestly say I wouldn’t think that would come, but here we are,” Nobile admitted. “It’s pretty much exhibition right now. If we show NHRA that there’s a bunch of cars here, and if the guys want to come out and race, I don’t see why not make it a class. It doesn’t have to be a full-time deal, make 8-10 races or whatever and then we can make it happen. I think it’s good.

“It’s a more affordable way of racing Pro Stock and if you can keep it that way, you can have 16-20 cars every weekend. You won’t have 10 fast cars, you can have 16 fast cars because everybody’s got the same stuff. You go out, you go to Jerry Haas and buy a chassis and you go to Sonny [Leonard] or [Jon] Kaase and buy the same engine everybody else has and you’re in the front.”

Nobile is just months away from the last time he drove a 500-inch Pro Stocker. It’s didn’t take long for him to feel the difference 300-plus cubic inches can provide.  

“You can tell the difference,” Nobile said. “These things make more torque than those cars make horsepower. When it leaves and you  shift into second, it’s still putting you in the seat unlike those 500-inch cars. They’re fun to drive. I’m out here just enjoying the opportunity.”

100 FOR WILKERSON AND HARTMAN – In an era where crew chief and driver combinations don't usually last long, driver Tim Wilkerson and tuner Richard Hartman are competing in their 100th race together this weekend. Hartman joined Wilkerson's team in 2015, and they've won three races and reached the Countdown to the Championship four times during their time together.

"Poor Hartman," Wilkerson jokes. "No, it's been a joy having Richard on our team, and for more than one reason. He brings a lot of things to the team that most people don't know about. He's good for me, he's good for the guys. I'm happy to have him. He doesn't throw his weight around like somebody that knows everything. He's plenty intelligent, but he doesn't get in my face on things I do or why I do them – unless I ask, which is cool.

"It's real valuable to have a guy that's been on all sides of it: driving, tuning, crew member. He worked with his dad and the Boninfantes when there was no money, and he knows what it's like to drive. He knows the challenges to this deal. He's a very positive addition to this team."

Interestingly, in Wilkerson's first nitro race at Gainesville in 1996, Hartman was the driver who sent him home.

"I beat his butt first round, and he reminds me of it every once in a while," Hartman said. "But his career has been a little bit more stellar than mine, so I think he's OK.

"It doesn't really seem that long; it's gone by pretty quick. Within the first couple of races, we just kind of hit a groove, and I've enjoyed being here ever since. I've known Tim a long time, and even though I know him a lot better now, we've always been friends. Working with this team has opened my eyes to a lot of things because Tim does things different than anything I was used to before. I really like how things are prepared, how he does things, and his organization. He has such a drive to win, it's an interesting experience to see all the little things he does to try to make that happen. It's pretty cool."

LINE UP IN SUPER STOCK – Pro Stock isn't racing at Charlotte this weekend, but three-time champion Jason Line is. Line, who occasionally races in Stock, drove his 1970 Buick in Super Stock for the first time in his career. He lost though, in the second round Saturday.

"I only get to run my car a couple of times a year, and I really just want to see how fast I can make it go," Line said. "It's just a chance for me to go and have some fun. I'm not here to beat up on anybody, they're going to beat up on me. This is about being with my wife (Cindy) and kids (Jack and Emma) and having a good time, and so far, absolutely it's been great.

"I've had the chance to visit with a few Sportsman racers I haven't seen in a long time, and I like my old car. It's a chance for me to relive my youth."

STOFFER REGAINS TOP SPOT - While Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Stoffer landed the provisional No. 1 position in Pro Stock Motorcycle on Friday night, it was her first pass of Saturday morning that secured the low E.T. of the event, 6.793 at 197.91 on her Stoffer Enterprises Suzuki. This marks the first time in four years for Stoffer to begin eliminations at the top of the ladder. With an impressive run of 6.802 at 196.10, Hector Arana Jr. is right behind Stoffer in the No. 2 position. Andrew Hines is third with a pass of 6.811 at 199.05. In the final round of qualifying, Matt Smith broke the track speed record with his pass of 6.838 at 200.32.

“It’s pretty big for me,” said Stoffer. “It’s been a long time and even then, I’ve only done it one other time so it’s pretty huge. I think what was more impressive for me was that we did it with a 6.79. I’ve never run in the 70s so it was a record for me E.T.-wise and to also maintain that and get the green hat in the end of qualifying was pretty huge.”

STOFFER STAYING BUSY WITH TWO TEAMS – Karen Stoffer can't sit still. That's good, because she won't be still for very long this season. In addition to managing the Underdahl-Stoffer Pro Stock Motorcycle team, Stoffer is riding for Jerry Savoie's White Alligator Racing team.

Oh, and she's been playing with a 2016 Mustang Cobra Jet Factory Shootout car in some western divisional races.

"It's different this year than any other year of professional racing for me because I'm racing, I am managing a team, the Underdahl-Stoffer racing team, but I'm riding the WAR bike over in Jerry's camp," Stoffer said. "So it's an interesting season for me. This all kind of transpired sometime around January. I was contemplating what I was going to do for this 2019 season. We got a call from (crew chief) Tim (Kulungian) and Jerry and basically they just made us an offer we couldn't refuse."
Racing on the WAR bike means Stoffer won't have her husband Gary tuning for her for the first time in her long NHRA career.

"I just can't determine if it's my husband's message saying, 'OK, I'm done tuning for you. You go drive for somebody else,'" Stoffer said with a smile. "All in all it's definitely an interesting year and a fun year. I'm excited. I'm looking forward to the end of the year and how it's going to progress."

She's joking about Gary, as he fully supports the move to the WAR team. Gary has been tuning Jianna Salinas on the bike Karen used to race, and Karen goes back and forth between that pit and the WAR pit.

"I actually have (autograph) cards in both locations and I'm hopping back and forth," Stoffer said. "But the good thing is is NHRA's working with us and pitting us next to each other so all I have to do is run around the corner and jump on the bike, then do the download. (The WAR team has) a very good program. I'm just coming in as an accessory to that really good program.

"Over here, on the Underdahl-Stoffer team, I'm a little more integral, but over there, I can just go ahead and go over there at certain times and apply myself and do what I need to do, and then come back. It's working out so far. Now come to me again in about eight more races and we might have a different story."

And that doesn't include the possibility of racing the Factory Showdown car on the same weekend as a PSM event. Stoffer said that may not happen this year, but she has been having fun racing on four wheels.

"I've been fortunate enough that I've been going rounds," Stoffer said. "I've only lost the first round one time so I'm learning that. I think the biggest thing that I have to adapt to is the staging. I'm so used to staging with my feet, and in a car you've got to stage under the power of the car. So just making sure that that's consistent is really where I'm focused.

"Of course pulling wheels in a car, that's something that we don't do with bikes. We have this thing called a wheelie bar behind us that keeps us pretty level. However, on a car, you see some of those cars pull the wheels and sometimes pretty much the driver's only looking at blue sky. So learning how to navigate that and drive through that is the other thing that is different than the motorcycle. But I'm adapting quick, I enjoy it; I'm having a great time."

Stoffer's PSM sponsor, Ray Skillman, also races in Factory Showdown, so she hopes to be able to line up against him at some point.

Until then, she has plenty of other things to keep her occupied.

"My plan was going the other direction and trying to take time off, but yeah, no," Stoffer said. "You know me, I like to keep busy and do things, and so I'm excited about it. I haven't had the time; I haven't had the opportunity yet to do both (car and motorcycle) at one event. If it does come out, it probably won't come about until the end of the year if at all. Maybe next year. Having fun learning that. It's really cool."

STUDEBAKER SCOTT – Top Fuel driver Scott Palmer had an unusual way to prepare for the Four-Wide Nationals: driving a Studebaker.

Mind you this isn't your grandfather's Studebaker. Palmer dropped a Top Fuel engine in the car and has his sights set on making a five-second, 300 mph run with it.

"That Studebaker is my golf game," Palmer said. "Everybody else golfs to relax. That car is what makes me smile."

It also makes Palmer chuckle at how out of hand the car has gotten.

"It's so crazy and outrageous," Palmer said. "It doesn't even make sense what we've done to that car, putting a Top Fuel motor in a door car like that. We have a great time with it, though, every time we roll it out, and it gets me back to my center.

"Since we didn't have much time off after Houston I decided to load the car up, drive to Oklahoma and make a couple of runs. We made some changes to make it more aggressive, and it ended up being way too aggressive. We've had runs that made it further down the track, but that doesn't matter. We had a lot of fun. Like I said, it's my golf game."

Palmer made the runs at Tulsa Raceway Park, bringing back some fond memories and helping him hit the reset button.

"In the early '90s Tulsa Raceway Park was the first place that ever gave me money to come down and show off at their Midnight Drags event," Palmer said. "All of us from Springfield (Mo.) went to the Midnight Drags about once a month and always had a great time. That time they paid me to be there was when I first got the idea I could do this for a living and survive. At the very least it gave me hope to keep trying.

"When you go back to where you started you remember why you race. It's because you love it, not for anything else. It makes you realize how lucky you are to get to run at this level with NHRA too. It makes you appreciate everything that much more."

BEWARE OF EDDIE KRAWIEC? – When Angelle Sampey joined the Vance & Hines Pro Stock Motorcycle team for 2019, she worried she'd be able to fit in. She didn't exactly get along with Eddie Krawiec, and she didn't have much of a relationship with Andrew Hines.

"I wasn't really sure what was going to happen with that one," Sampey said. "I'm joining teams with Eddie Krawiec, who I've wanted to beat up at the end of the race track a few times, and Andrew Hines, who I wasn't quite sure if he liked me or not because he never really spoke to me much at all. And then the rest of the guys we just didn't talk. There was no relationship, so I was kind of scared.

"Didn't know how they would treat me but they were definitely very welcoming. I don't want to say open arms; there's been some jokes. Eddie said he will choke me out; he's not above that."

She's joking, of course, and her mixed martial arts background will likely take care of Krawiec.

"All kidding aside, I think we get along perfectly," Sampey said. "We fit together so well. I actually think I've brought out a little of Andrew and Eddie's personality that maybe no one had ever seen before. I'm kind of good at that. I'm a Ragin' Cajun. I'm having a blast; I'm so blessed right now to be on this team.

"I haven't shown it performance-wise by my own fault. That is coming. I do have some more things I need to get used to and remind myself what I'm capable of but it's coming, I promise you. You're going to see some really good things from me and my motorcycle soon."


IT IS THE NIGHT OF FIRE, AFTER ALL - Jack Beckman was on fire Friday night, but not really on fire. The fire, however, was all around him as he raced to the provisional No. 1 position on Friday at the 10th annual NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

Beckman powered his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat to the top of the Funny Car category with his run of 3.891-seconds at 321.42 mph during NHRA’s Friday Prime Time Night Of Fire, featuring pyrotechnics and special music for each driver.

“I forgot about the fire. And I found myself having a very ‘fan’ moment in the race car,” said Beckman. “This is just one of those moments. I thought, this is my job. I get strapped into a nitro Funny Car and they’re making a big deal out of this. They’re playing my song. They’re putting fireworks out there. And then we’re going to fire the car up. And you don’t want to go through all that and be lackluster. The icing on the cake was to have the car run as good as it did. I don’t know if the 3.89 will hold, but it gives the other teams something to shoot for. And more importantly, it gives us something to shoot for.”

PATHWAY TO SUCCESS - Mike Salinas stands as the Top Fuel category pace-setter after setting the track E.T. record of 3.687 at a speed of 327.43 in his Scrappers Racing Dragster.

Salinas isn’t just proud of his first win in Top Fuel three weeks ago at the DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA 4-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, he’s also proud of his team's rise to prominence and the pathway they've taken to success.  

“The nice part is, we’re not hurting parts,” says Salinas. “Alan Johnson is really methodical, and Brian Husen and Arron Cave are really being methodical, how to save money, save parts, and just run this thing the right way instead of what’s the norm out here, wasting money and wasting parts. That’s what’s running people out of business. So, every team owner is trying to do what we are actually doing.

“Corporate money, corporate sponsors, you want to make sure that you can give them the bang for their buck, so you put what they’re paying you, you put that in the right places.”

Salinas appears to be taking advantage of this business model. He secured his win at Vegas after a strong 3.801 second, 330.39 MPH run over Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, and Clay Millican. The victory vaulted him up to second in the standings.

The road to respectability hasn’t been all too smooth this season.

A fast run put him in 6th in qualifying in Houston only to lose to Antron Brown on a holeshot win in the first round. Salinas currently sits fourth in Top Fuel standings.

Salinas looks to capitalize on his recent success at the 4-Wides this Sunday at the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA 4-Wide Nationals and prove that he can win again, “I really appreciate getting that gorilla off my back. It’s possible now that I know I can win with the team that I have.” - Zachary Hinson

STOFFER DELIVERS PROVISIONAL - In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Karen Stoffer ran a 6.864 at 195.17 to take the top spot in her Stoffer Enterprises Suzuki. She is in search of her first No. 1 qualifier since Atlanta 2015 and her first at zMAX Dragway.

MOTHER NATURE HAS A HISSY-FIT - At 6:15 PM, NHRA officials postponed the first professional qualifying session until 8 PM, EST at the NGK Four-Wide Nationals in Concord, NC, following high winds. One trio of Funny Cars managed to run before conditions became apparently unsafe for competition.

Two sessions of sportsman qualifying were completed before rain and high winds, halted competition just shy of 2:30 PM.

Qualifying was limited to just one session, and even though the track was dry, racing was suspended while the Safety Safari worked tirelessly to remove debris and pollen which the swirling winds kept blowing onto the track.

THIRD QUICKEST PRO MOD - Jose Gonzalez was quick on Friday evening during the lone Pro Modified qualifying on Friday evening at the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.

Gonzalez covered the zMax Dragway quarter-mile in 5.657 seconds at  257.14 miles per hour. Not only was the run No. 1 provisionally, it also marks the third quickest run in NHRA Pro Modified history.

"Since last year in Vegas we’ve had a very good car," Gonzalez said. "The car has been flawless, it’s just we’ve had some very bad luck this year. First race of the year, we got weather that we had never ran in before so we struggled a little bit there. Then the second race we broke a motor and broke a converter.

"So we got our game cut off basically on that. I mean what can you expect when I have the best tuner with me in the sport of drag racing right now and the best crew I can have? Backing me up by Pro-Line Racing and Q80. I mean this Q80 racing car is flawless right now. My job is the easy part. I guess these guys are the ones that need to take all the credit."

Gonzalez believes there was a little bit more performance left on the table during the run.

"We might have a little bit more in it, I’m not gonna say a whole lot but you always leave a little bit there just in case," Gonzalez said. "We want to get down, that’s what we were trying to do and we were definitely trying to go fast. I wasn’t expecting that number that fast. We were expecting more like a .67 or a .68. But the car had the best 60 foot we’ve ever had in NHRA. We went a .960 60 foot which for a turbo car is pretty stout."

If the run holds, Gonzalez will have qualified No. 1 in back-to-back races.

Alex Laughlin was second with a 5.708, 256.55 just ahead of the quickest supercharged entry, the '68 Camaro driven by Todd Tutterow (5.714, 250.04) and nitrous car, Chad Green (5.718, 249.16).

Erica Enders is eighth with a 5.755; her 260.41 mile per hour blast is the current top speed.

Michael Biehle anchors the field with a 7.414 elapsed time.

THAT CARR IS QUICK - Two weeks ago, J.R. Carr established the first-ever NHRA Mountain Motor Pro Stock elapsed time record. Friday night at zMax Dragway, he didn't set a record, but he was plenty quick.

Carr established the provisional No. 1 during first-day qualifying for the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals with a 6.240 elapsed time at 225.79 miles per hour.

“We’re happy,” Carr said. “That’s a whole different world out there with four cars going down the track. We’ve never done it. I did a little studying and understood the staging because I figured that’d be the first thing I screwed up. I did okay there. Car got out a little bit on me and got away from me a little bit so there’s a better pass in it."

Friday night's Q-2 session was the first time the cars hit the track because rain and high winds forced the cancellation of the first scheduled qualifying run.

Carr was just happy he managed to stage the car and keep it reasonably straight.

"The car was moving a little bit on me and I got behind the shift and once you lose, at least with me, once I lose my rhythm I’m just kind of off," Carr explained. "And so I was a little bit off. I wasn’t bad but it wasn’t as pretty as what Houston was, I can say that."

Perfect run or not, Carr is just happy to be part of the show.

"This is amazing," he said. "We’re doing things that haven’t been done before. This class is coming together and all the fans just love it. The media’s gone crazy. This is what we needed to kind of get the spark plug going again in this class, because it’s a phenomenal class.

"I mean, you can get a Sonny’s motor, Jerry Haas car, Jerry Bickel car, Liberty transmission, and come race. It’s a really cool class and it’s the funnest car I’ve ever driven in my life. It is just a handful, but it’s fun."

Houston low qualifier Chris Powers was second with a  6.244, 223.50  while Elijah Morton, was third with his Mustang at a 6.262  215.58  215.58.

Jeff Dobbins, the lone Mopar racer in the field, was fourth with a 6.272, 222.91

THE NEW ROAD - Angelle Sampey is one of the most successful racers in NHRA history, as her 42 victories rank second on the all-time wins list in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

She's a three-time champion who has seen it all in her career that started in 1996.

But racing a Harley-Davidson Street Rod this season had her "scared to death."

"I expected the motorcycle to be totally different, and it is, but I've gotten used to it pretty quickly," Sampey said. "I'm actually very much in love with it now. It's my favorite motorcycle I've ever ridden. It's the toughest that I've ever ridden, and the fastest, but that's what I like about it so much is the challenge."

Sampey spent her entire career on other brands of motorcycles but got the chance to get on a Harley this season. Now, she'll race one the full season, including this weekend's NKG Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

Sampey has lost in the first round in each of the first two PSM races in 2019, but Harley teammate Andrew Hines said she's making plenty of progress.

"She definitely had some learning to do on how to ride our motorcycle vs. what she'd been riding before," Hines said. "But every run she's gotten better and better and she definitely learns very quick on what she needs to fix. … She's going to knock off some round wins and break some hearts here real soon."

Sampey admitted that before she rode a Street Rod, she was "afraid out of this world."

"I was fortunate enough to sit on Andrew's bike once or twice in the past years, but this was my Harley-Davidson," Sampey said. "They did such a good job at making it fit me so perfectly that when I closed my eyes, it felt like every other bike I had been on. But then I'd open my eyes and I'd see it was a Harley and the fear would just jump right back in."

Sampey recalls twisting the throttle the first time, hearing the Harley engine rev with a fury she wasn't used to.

"Oh my God," Sampey said. "So now I'm scared to death to get on it, but I had to get on it."

The power of a Harley was the most notable difference, she said.

"When I let that clutch go, the torque was probably the biggest difference," Sampey said. "The way it pulled in each gear, I wasn't used to it. And then there's no big faring wrapping around the front to protect your shoulders or your hands. We have this little bitty windshield and that was something that was way different than anything I've ever felt before. I didn't feel like it was pushing me off the bike, but the sensation of how fast I was going was finally there.

"I've had people in the past ask me, 'What's it feel like to go nearly 200 miles an hour?' And to us behind the fairing, you don't really feel the wind. Now I do. It feels like I'm going 400 miles an hour is what it feels like."

In Las Vegas, Sampey moved her hand to turn the engine off after a run, but the wind flung her hand back.

"Now I know you can't be rushing that," Sampey said. "Got to keep your hand on the handlebar. We've made a lot of changes to the bike so that I'm more comfortable with it. Other than the torque and the wind, and just the body style itself, the way these guys set up the bike, they make it so easy to ride.

"It was a matter of me trusting them as well as the motorcycle and getting used to that because I was popping the clutch and trying to fix it before I even needed to. So I'm settling into that and I'm learning to trust (Hines) and he's learning what he needs to do. He tunes my motorcycle and I have to race against him, so that's kind of weird in itself, but it's working out. We're both learning each other and I'm learning the bike and things are getting better.

CAN HIGHT GET EVEN BETTER? – When Robert Hight won the 2017 Funny Car championship, he didn't get his first race victory of the season until July in Denver. Last year, he won his first race at Chicago in May.

This season, though, has started quite differently. Hight won the season-opener in Pomona and has followed up with victories at Gainesville and Houston.

"It's pretty crazy," Hight said. "We've won every other race, but we're going to change that here. We're finally going to win two in a row – at least I hope."

True, Hight has followed up each of his first two wins with losses, but he's hoping to change that this weekend, as he's coming off a win in Houston, the most recent race.

"I really feel that Funny Car is the toughest class to win in," Hight said. "I think you have more evenly matched cars and a lot of great drivers. To start like this, you don't hardly even dream this big."

But Hight, the two-time champion, has big dreams, including being better as a team by the time summer rolls around.  

"I hope so; that's the plan," Hight said. "It seems like when you're running this well and dominating, you force the other teams to work harder and get better. I know when we're on the other end of it, that's what we're doing: We're chasing them to try to get to the top.

"There's a lot of good cars trying to do the same thing (to us)."

AUSTIN PROCK: WHO IS JORDAN VANDERGRIFF? – There's a budding rivalry in Top Fuel between rookies Austin Prock and Jordan Vandergriff. The two had a small wager on their first head-to-head matchup, a bet won by Prock in the first round in Houston. Vandergriff isn't racing in Charlotte, but Prock was asked about battling his good buddy.

"Who?" Prock said with a smile.

The two became friends while students at Frank Hawley's Drag Racing School, and they clearly enjoy needling each other.

"I love racing Jordan," Prock said. "We're actually pretty good buddies outside the race track. On the race track, we've got a lot on the line. We're both gunning for Rookie of the Year, and I want to beat that kid every time I line up against him. It's real satisfying when I do."

In Houston, Prock left first and outran Vandergriff to win some bragging rights.

"That was a huge round win over him in the first round," Prock said. "Left on him and we outran him. We ran low ET of the round. I don't think we could've done it with any more style."

CRUZ THE DRIVER HAPPY WITH CRUZ THE TUNER – After Cruz Pedregon won the Four-Wide Nationals last year, he figured he'd pile up more wins and contend for another Funny Car championship.

But Pedregon won only nine more rounds over the remaining 18 races and failed to qualify at Norwalk.

What made matters worse is that Pedregon was tearing up a lot of equipment.

"Last year was a big win for us," Pedregon said. "I thought we were going to go on a roll and win a bunch more, but it turns out by the end of the year, we had four blown up bodies and shrapnel for spare equipment. So I had to make a change, and it was a change for the better."

Pedregon fired crew chief Aaron Brooks and brought in Tommy DeLago last August, but DeLago didn't return for this season. That left Pedregon tuning his own cars, something with which he's familiar.

"This year, we’ve had five races and it’s one of the consistent cars," Pedregon said. "It’s run 3.91 at every place we’ve gone to except for Phoenix. Runs 328 (mph), runs good speed, and it doesn’t hurt parts. So it’s a good thing."

Pedregon is also running a Dodge Charger body in 2019 after several years in a Toyota.

"It was a great change because I feel like the Dodge bodies, they’re the winningest cars if you look at the last five years, whether it’s body-related or team-related, whatever," Pedregon said. "They’re the cars that have won the most races. So we’re glad to be with Dodge. They’re great people. As far as performance, I don’t know that it has made a big difference but the car sure handles nice, and it looks nice."

RUNNING AGAINST THE WIND? – A long day of strange and wild weather eventually ended without any on-track incidents, but you can be sure Pro Stock Motorcycle racers were watching their weather info closely. Winds were howling so much earlier in the day that NHRA had to halt Funny Car qualifying, so you can imagine what that wind would have done to a smaller, lighter motorcycle.

Eventually, NHRA moved qualifying to 8 p.m. Eastern, with the bikes going first. But then the sanctioning body moved the bikes after the fuel classes.

"NHRA, I’m proud of them for realizing that it was too dangerous with the wind gusts and delaying it," Hector Arana Jr. said. "Even then (at 8 p.m), it was still a little windy, so they put the (fuel) cars in front of us, knowing it's not going to affect them as much – and it would help heat up the track and get some rubber down for us where it's a little more critical. It was a wise decision on their part, and we're glad we had a safe track to go down."

The wind ended up being no factor.

"When we ran, I don't think there was much wind at all," Arana Jr. said. "The track was a little cold, and because of that, we were spinning down the track, and that threw off our tuneup."

Arana Jr. said PSM racers never had a chance to tell NHRA their opinion of running in the winds.

"I wasn't sure which way it was blowing, but honestly, it didn't matter which direction it was blowing, gusts like that are going to mess you up," Arana Jr. said. "I was nervous, and then they made the call where I didn't have to think about it."

BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY - The way Matt Smith sees it, a little gamesmanship on the starting line is simply part of the, well, game. Especially when racing the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte.

Smith has never been one to shy away from using the "by any means necessary" mantra, and if that means staging late, staging early, double-bulbing someone, then so be it.

"When you get up to the starting line, you want to win," Smith said. "That's my mentality. I don't know what they think, but I was raised up under my dad (to believe) we do whatever it takes to win that round and to win that race. I'll go to whatever extreme I need to do that."

And when you're racing three other competitors, it's even more extreme. On race day, the first two racers to get to the finish line from each "quad" advance to the next round. So if Smith can psych out one, that's fewer people he has to beat.

"I love the Four-Wide format," Smith said. "I lot of people don't get it, a lot of older people don't get it. It's kinda complicated, lanes two and three, but I love it. I love the challenge, I love new things. I try to explain it like NASCAR: They have road race tracks. That's their oddball, and this is our oddball. I try to go up there and so my job. If I can play the game a little bit and mess one person up or two, you've just got to have two win lights on (to advance). If you mess one up, you're only battling two other people. "

It's not personal, Smith says, with about "85 percent" of the Pro Stock Motorcycle camp. The other 15 percent? Well …

"There's only a couple people I don't get along with in this motorcycle camp," Smith said. "One's on Facebook. Y'all see I don't get along with that guy – not a lot of people get along with him anyway."